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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Casking at Olney and Old Bay

It was a unique occasion, one autumn evening in 1993 at the Old Bay Restaurant in Brunswick, New Jersey. I watched as Sir Anthony Fuller pulled the first pint of cask Fuller's ESB ever served in the US.

And it was fresh ... very fresh! The peer and his cask had flown from England only the day before on the Concorde.

The Fullers ESB would initially puzzle my nose. It had the unmistakable character of sulfur, almost a spent match aroma like that of well-drawn water. English brewers call that the "Burton snatch", naming it for the olfactory effect of high gypsum content in the waters of Burton, England. Burton was the home of the world's first great pale ales.

It may have taken a few whiffs, but soon my nose was unpuzzled, and maybe a few gulps, but soon I myself was enlightened. Beer may have been my vocation, but cask ale that evening became a calling.

For example ...

Last week, I tapped a cask of Holy Sheet Uber Abbey Ale, Clipper City's new spring seasonal - a 9% abv russet brown ale inspired by abbey dubbels - at a marvelous beer dinner in Leesburg, Virginia at Tuscarora Mill. That was the first cask, anywhere, of this beer.

And, yesterday, Clipper City was invited to the Olney Ale House to likewise tap a fresh cask of Holy Sheet, the first in Maryland. Brewmaster Ernesto (Ernie) Igot came for the occasion, bringing two of our brewers with him: Chris Mallon and John Eugeni. (Our cellarmaster, Steven 'Spike' Marsh, had a prior commitment.)

As I prepared to drive in the tap, the patrons at the Ale house gave me a 5-4-3-2-1 countdown, ending with enthusiastic - if very carefully enunciated - cries of HOLY SHEET!

A Belgian-style beer is not the natural choice for cask ale (British styles would be), but this method of serving would surely bring forward this strong ale's full fresh flavors. And there was no Burton Snatch in the pint that poured but rather big flavored allusions to yeasty bread, apple-brown-betty, sweet rum, and cloves.

The Belgian yeast strain was a voracious fermenter; the cask remained active, spewing and sputtering. The pints poured cloudy - maybe not visually appealing to my cask purist's eyes - but gaining additional yeasty flavors. The many attendees seemed not to mind!

Friends and supporters of Clipper City Brewing stopped by. There was Jason Williams, wine manager for the nearby Olney Beer and Fine Wine, Mike Horkan of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, Alan Hew, an award-winning homebrewer and recognized cellarman, and many others filling the front barroom.

Olney Ale House (pronounced like the 'ol' in holly, by the way) is one of those rare restaurants that is both a fine beer emporium and a comfortable, welcoming pub. Proprietor John Roach and his bartenders and staff engage you in conversation, a practice often lacking at too many other bars and restaurants. Beer, after all, tastes best in the good company of others.

The bar holds some 20 taps, most of which are local and craft brews accompanied by a few import taps and a large selection of bottles. And the Ale House actually is in an old house sitting in sedate, if no longer rural, Olney, Maryland.

I finish this post back at the Old Bay Restaurant. It is still pouring good beer. Its renowned bar manager from 1993 - Chris Demitri - has passed away. But his legacy of good beer promotion lives on. One of his former staff members, Ron Fischer, is a nationally recognized expert on cask ale. He works for cask and beer importer B. United.

More photos.

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